Spare a thought for the first-time voter

Sunday May 01 2016

Officially or not, election fever is here. With it has come the usual politicking, campaigning and mobilising along the same old lines.

But something else is also upon us. The 2017 elections will be the third election cycle in which I will participate. By participation, I mean the voting process in which it all culminates

Lately I have found myself thinking about the first-time voters in next year’s election, the people born after March 1994 and before August 1999.

I remember the excitement of being a first time voter, with the “power” to exercise my democratic right back then. I also recall that it really boiled down to a false dichotomy: PNU or ODM.

It wasn’t about political ideology so much as it was about that ethnic mobilisation. Practically all political conversations around me boiled down to which of the two camps one belonged to and the ethnicity dimensions around that.

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As young people, we are often told that we hold the keys to and hope for the future, and are change makers. We are mobilised, rallied and mollified with all these ideas of what we can unlock in some undefined future timeline.


I think back on the shock and dismay that accompanied the 2007 post-election outcome, and the role of young people in the violence.

In various spaces, I heard many people point out that they could not believe young people were also co-opted into the country's ethnicised politics. The “hope for the future” were now enlisted among those who may well serve as the greatest threat to it.

Youth were also among the biggest victims and casualties.

What I found striking, and still do when it comes to how many actors speak about the youth, is the rather romanticised notion that young people, by virtue of their youth, can rise above the norms in their environs.

I fear that this will be perpetuated with next year’s cohort of first time voters.

How many people have stopped to ask this generation of voters about their level of political awareness and inclinations?

Is it that we don’t want to confront the possibility that, just like my cohort, they won’t necessarily pass the test of forming political views beyond the notion of ethnicity?

Even more worrisome is those young people whose lineage comprises multiple ethnicities.


I call it a romanticised notion because it presumes that young people’s beliefs are formed in a vacuum absent of the very things that their parents, siblings and communities portray as the way of politics.

The comments – some muttered overtly, some under one’s breath, the stereotypes that make for casual banter today and a call to arms tomorrow; these are the lived experiences and contexts under which young people’s understanding of politics is shaped.

And so with next year’s first time voters, I can’t help but wonder if “CORD vs Jubilee” is the extent of political engagement, awareness and participation.

What are their sources of political news? How do they differ from the sources many others, like myself, looked to as first-time voters?

Are our parents, teachers, peers, media, political and religious leaders speaking a different language of politics and politicking in Kenya? Are there alternative forms of political mobilisation? If so, what are they?

Even as others observe that Kenyan youth are largely left out of political participation, what constitutes this participation?

Political spaces for students at secondary and tertiary levels come to mind, and elections in the the latter have culminated in outcomes not dissimilar to the all-too-familiar tense national election outcomes.


Will the youth remain political pawns? Is the only viable alternative to opt out of political engagement altogether?

When I think of the gendered dimension to political participation, it is disheartening to note that it very likely won’t be any easier for the women coming of “political age” in this generation to engage.

The youth are the future, but they are not nurtured in a vacuum. Indeed, the findings in the 2016 Kenya Youth Survey report should have shocked no one: while 90 per cent of the youth stated that it is important to vote, 40 per cent of those interviewed said that they would only vote for a candidate who bribed them.

Granted, the study factored in a sample of youth within the bigger 18-35-age bracket. I hypothesise, however, that speaking specifically to the 18-24 year olds who will be first time voters next year would likely unveil similar thinking.

It would be an indictment on our political organising space if next year’s first-time voters end up perpetuating the cycle of ethnicised politics.

This cohort should not have to say the words “never again”, as many in mine did. We all owe them that.

 Twitter: @NiNanjira